Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Limits of Angelology

1. The Limits of Angelology (369)

The challenge with angelology, the doctrine of angels, is to say enough without saying too much; to say all that can and should be said without indulging in unwarranted speculation. The challenge is that angels are “a reality which is distinct both from God and man, and therefore distinct from the true and central content of the Word of God although intimately related to it. The problem of angelology, the character of the kingdom of God as the kingdom of heaven, and the being and activity of heavenly messengers of God border on problems which are necessarily alien to the task and purpose of a dogmatics grounded on the Word of God” (370).

In particular, “the doctrine of angels, unlike that of predestination, creation, or man, has in the strict sense no meaning and [370] content of its own. Angels are not independent and autonomous subjects like God and man and Jesus Christ. They cannot, therefore, be made the theme of independent discussion. Directed to God and man, and belonging particularly to the person and work of Christ, they are only the servants of God and man. They are, only as they come and go in this service. They are essentially marginal figures. This is their glory…Hence they have to be considered in our present context, namely, in the consideration of God’s lordship over the creature, which has its meaning and centre in its exercise in Jesus Christ…Strictly speaking, every angelological statement can only be an auxiliary or additional statement, an explanation and elucidation of what is not to be said properly and essentially of angels but—corresponding to the ministerial nature and work of angels—of the divine action in Jesus Christ and therefore of the divine lordship in the creaturely world” (370).

“In the first sub-section, then, we shall attempt some basic and methodological clarifications in relation to these questions” (371).

1. We will take the Bible as our only source and norm for all we have to say about angels.

We will listen to all the Bible has to say on the subject of angels. We will take what it says, and does not say, as the limit of what we can and should say about angels. We do so because we accept Holy Scripture “as the human and historical but unique and normative witness to the revelation and work of God in His dealing in Jesus Christ and therefore in His lordship in the creaturely world. According to the witness of the Old and New Testaments, to this revelation and work of God there belongs also the character of the kingdom of God as the kingdom of heaven, and the angels as His heavenly messengers. They belong to it in a peculiar way, not as leading but subsidiary characters, and these not as autonomous subjects but merging as it were in their function, which is wholly and exemplarily that of service. It is only in this way that they belong to it. But in this way they do belong to it” (372).

2. We will wrestle with all the Bible has to say, and not to say, about angels to reach a genuine understanding of them.

According to the biblical witnesses, the nature and work of angels does belong, though incidentally, to God’s word and work. Consequently, they belong to the faith of the Church and, therefore, “incidentally and softly to its proclamation” (373). We rightly honor the authority of Scripture by asking exhaustively what Scripture says about angels. This of course comes only after we acknowledge that the effort involved is worth doing and do it (373). We also make this effort for the sake of “personal honesty and conscientiousness” (374). In addition, we do it to make our proclamation credible. A proclamation and dogmatics that denied or ignored angels, or spoke carelessly about them, “would be guilty of an indolent omission which might well jeopardize the whole Church” (374).

When the Bible makes statements about angels and demons, it makes statements about actual events in history which, nonetheless, are not empirically verifiable. To empirically verifiable historical events corresponds what we will call historical narrative or documented history. To empirically unverifiable historical events corresponds what we will call legend. According to this use of terms, biblical narratives regarding angels are legends or legendary witnesses. This is because we may perceive the presence, words, and actions of angels “only by divinatory imagination, and find expression [of them] only in the freer observation and speech of poetry” (374).

Remember: angels are real. To say that narratives concerning them are legends is not to say that legends are less important or just fairy tales compared with historical narrative. Imagination too can grasp real history; and poetry, too, can express it! Of course, not all legends recount actual events in history. A legend may be true or false. So, in the Bible, if an event concerning an angel is not empirically verifiable and so is narrated in the form of a legend, this does not mean the event did not occur. We may still believe it did. And “if we believe it, it is because we see that it has happened as the revelation and work of divine grace, and this is the gift of our enlightenment by the Holy Spirit” (374).

“The whole history of the Bible, while it intends to be and is real spatio-temporal history, has a constant bias towards the sphere where it cannot be verified by the ordinary analogies of world history but can be seen and grasped only imaginatively and represented in the form of poetry. How can it be otherwise when it is a history of the action and lordship of the Lord of heaven and earth, although it can also take place in the comparatively narrow sphere of ordinary earthly analogies? To some extent the angels mark this transition, this reaching of the incommensurable into the commensurable, of mystery into the sphere of known possibilities” (375). “In general and formal terms, the angels are the particular representatives of the mystery of the biblical history” (376).

Regarding angels, faith still seeks understanding; we still ask the question of theological truth concerning them, even if they remain figures of biblical legend. We do so because “there can be meaningful as well as meaningless imagination, and disciplined as well as undisciplined poetry—this is the difference between good saga and bad…The subject of the imagination and poetry of the biblical writers…is the spatio-temporally real history of the revelation and work of divine grace. This subject orders what they think and say in terms of [legend] no less than in terms of history. It establishes the meaning and discipline of their divination, of their imagination and poetry. This subject is the truth which…they seek to attest and to which…they subject themselves. If we really hear them, we hear them speak of this subject” (376).

3. We seek a genuine understanding of angels because Scripture confronts us with them and we can only know the truth concerning them on the basis of Scripture (cf. 401).

We do so that our doctrine of angels may be theological in character; that is, meaningful for both the faith and proclamation of the Church (378). In other words, we do not seek knowledge of angels in general or simply out of curiosity. We do so because the biblical witnesses speak of angels in relation to God’s word and work in Jesus Christ. That is what makes the truth about angels important. That is also why we do not want to bring preconceived notions about angels to the Bible; but, instead, want to develop our conception of angels strictly on the basis of what the Bible says, and does not say, about them (379).

4. Scripture is the only witness to angels we need in order to understand the truth about angels; we need not, and should not, look for another either to the right or the left.

In other words, we need have no anxiety concerning the adequacy of the biblical witness to angels. The biblical witness does not need to be supplemented by the speculations of others to gain in credibility. “Even in this matter of angels we must dare to trust the Holy Spirit, and for good or evil we must dare to trust in Him alone” (403).

If we do not, “our philosophy will spoil our theology…” (404). “The knowledge which does not dare to be wholly and exclusively theological and therefore in faith and therefore based on the witness of Holy Scripture will as such be a pale and uncertain knowledge and erroneous at the decisive point…But if we dare to be content with Scripture alone, it can only be because the promise of the Holy Spirit has itself been given us by Scripture. The risk is not then a real risk, but simply the obedience required of us…It is perhaps as well to be clear at this point that in angelology too the theological question is a spiritual one” (404).

Following the Reformation, we are consciously aware that “the Bible is not merely one respectable text-book [or authority] among others but the witness of the concrete divine revelation which constitutes the Church and therefore the text to which Christian doctrine has to keep, on the content of which it must base its thinking, and to which it is always responsible” (405).

5. If we stick with the Bible, we will come to an adequate understanding of angels.

Of course, if we stick with the Bible alone, we will not have affirmed all we have ever heard about angels. “We need not be surprised that in a whole series of points which arouse particular interest…the biblical doctrine of angels gives us no information whatever. It tells us nothing, for example, about the much ventilated question of the ‘nature’ of angels, whether they are persons, or what is their relationship to the physical world and to space, their number and order, their creation, their original unity, their ensuing division into angels and demons, and many other things which later there was both the desire and the supposed ability to know” (410-11).

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